Capital Letter: The law of unintended consequences

by Maggie Blenkinsop

It was my daughter’s birthday, or rather it had been her birthday three weeks before, and we met in a coffee bar for me to pass over her present. We live less than a mile apart but we rarely meet, although we email each other several times a week. She works. I work. She has a husband and child to care for and I have a large number of business colleagues, who are also friends, to look after.

Her grandparents were subsistence farmers in the Punjab. Her father came here at fifteen with his elder brother, lied about his age and got a job at Ford’s making cars. She has a degree and works in human resources for a small bank in the stock exchange. Put like that, it looks to be a three-generation upward progression – but is that really the case? She looked tired. She is filling-in for a woman on maternity leave. Next month they will both work part-time and then my daughter is back looking for a job again.  (She is, of course, not my biological daughter. She grew up next door to me and spent almost as much of her childhood in my house as in her own.  Her parents were never jealous, they always encouraged her and her brothers to treat me and my late husband as secondary parents so she is used to looking to me when she needs advice.)

Her husband is on flexi-time and arranges his day so he can pick their daughter up from school.  I tell her she won’t be out of work for long. I mean it, she’s a hard worker and conscientious and that counts for a lot with employers. She sighs and plays with the earrings I have just given her. “Every time I buy something people tell me I should be saving up for a deposit” she says. “But I don’t want to go without for the rest of my life…” They have a very small one-bedroom flat, not ideal when you have an eight-year-old child, but on the other hand they are two minutes’ walk from the Underground on a line that takes them both straight to work.

Do I think house prices will come down, she asks me. I act as consultant to people in the property business so I am supposed to know these things. No, I tell her, it’s not going to happen, not unless the Eurozone collapses, taking with it the European Union and dragging the world into the kind of recession never seen before. “I’m not jealous” she says, “when I see other people with nice houses who don’t work half as hard as we do…” She has more than one female relation who does not go out to work, in one case a cousin with a very hard-working husband, in another case a sister-in-law who lives in a council house and brings up her three children herself while supported by her husband with quite a bit of help from the state. “I just wish people wouldn’t keep telling me where I’m going wrong.”

The truth is that house prices in London today have reached a point where a young couple, both with degrees and both with jobs in the City, cannot afford more than a one bedroom flat. Currently a three bedroom house in this area costs around £475,000 to buy.  People who can raise that sort of mortgage don’t want to live round here so all the buyers are professional landlords, buying them up, converting them into one-bedroom flats and renting them out to young couples who are going to find themselves in the same position as my daughter a few years down the line. And it is all because of the Law of Unintended Consequences, which I am going to explain to you now.

You have heard of Murphy’s Law – if it is possible for anything to go wrong, it will – and Sod’s Law – any slice of buttered toast dropped on a carpet will fall butter side down 99% of the time – but the Law of Unintended Consequences is less well known. I can’t claim to have made it up but I do tend to quote it a great deal, as it applies to the field of politics rather more than to any other area.

World War II had a very bad effect on our housing stock, especially in places that were heavily bombed.  Of course there was rebuilding later, but never quite enough. When a Labour government came to power under Harold Wilson in 1964 one of the things it had promised to do was improve housing for the poor.  Most working class people lived, as they had always done, in rented accommodation. Most of it was in poor condition and there was a terrible shortage but then, there always had been.  New Minister of Housing, Richard Crossman, was determined to improve things. A Committee on Housing in Greater London was set up and reported back in March 1965.  A new Rent Act was passed the same year giving security of tenancy and low rents to most of those who lived in low-priced housing. A nation-wide Rent Officer Service was set up, which made it difficult to evict tenants or to harrass them with the intention of forcing them out. More furnished houses came under the jurisdiction of Rent Tribunals, who not only set low rents but also extended the period by which eviction could be delayed. And by 1972 rents could be frozen as part of the government’s counter-inflationary measures. All done with the best of intentions no doubt, but did any of it actually help the poor?  Er, no. It made it unprofitable to be a landlord so landlords sold off their property to those who could afford to buy and, before you knew it, everybody in the wealthier parts of the country had to save up for a deposit, take on a mortgage and we were well on the way to our present state of affairs.

There was one other group of well-meaning people who unintentionally added to our present crisis.  I mean the Feminists.

Yes, I know the movement originated in the United States.  Yes, I know that women were disrespected and earned far lower wages than men, even when they did the identical job. No, I don’t think that was a good state of affairs but Feminism became fashionable and you surely must have noticed that people will do and believe all sorts of nonsense once it gets to be fashionable.

House prices were rising like rockets because there was more demand than supply. Young couples simply couldn’t afford to pay these prices, which should have resulted in prices starting to drop. Instead, mortgage companies announced that in future, when calculating who could afford a mortgage, they would take both salaries into account, that is they would look at the wife’s pay as well as the husband’s.  This may seem common sense to those of you who have never known anything different so I must explain to you that long ago in the pre-feminist world men were paid enough to support not only themselves but a wife and children too.  Women, apart from career women, then a term of disparagement, worked until they got married. Some actually worked until they got pregnant but pregnancy was not long put off. In the sixties most women had completed their families by the age of 26!

So, by the Law of Unintended Consequences, we have reached a world where women leave it so late to get pregnant that more and more of them need expensive National Health Service assistance to get pregnant at all.  Do not delude yourself that most of these women have been working in interesting and rewarding jobs.  No, Feminism was started by women who worked in very interesting and rewarding jobs but for most women running their own homes and bringing up their own children would be far more rewarding than stacking shelves in a supermarket or answering calls in a call centre.  But the government loves the current situation.  Yes, even this present government that respects marriage so much it wants it to be open to everyone.  Why do I think that, you may wonder. Well, when you have one woman going out to work because she has been brain-washed into believing that every right-minded woman loves going to work, then you have to have another woman, highly-trained no doubt, to take most of the first woman’s wages in return for looking after her young.  It cuts down on unemployment for a start and doubles the income tax you can take and it makes you so much more modern.  Even where families split up and fathers disappear, the government leans on the abandoned mother to put her kids in a nursery and get herself into a job… Who knows what the unintended consequences of this will be?

The writer and regular contributor to LAFZ Magazine.